Pyrography: Traditional Art

by Kathleen Menendez

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To Timbuktu in Search of Pyrography!

On the Sahara Desert at Timbuktu
Visiting a Tuareg Man and his Camels

Anthropologists Lisa K. Weidman,
J. Scott Weidman (not in picture),
and Friend Ben Vail

Photograph by J. Scott Weidman

The Republic of Mali is a West African country, located on the southern edge of the Sahara Desert. Timbuktu is one of Mali's northernmost cities--very remote even from the capital city of Bamako, where our anthropologists who got us these photos live and work. Their travels throughout Mali, mostly up the Niger River, were where they discovered the pyrography they are sharing with us here.

Because here we are looking at a traditional form of pyrography, it seems important to make some distinctions in the terminology used here and elsewhere in this series of articles. In this fifth article, you will see reference to traditional art without use of the term folk art, even though that term would not be inappropriate. All who have been following this series have observed the term "folk art" in the third article where the work of the Rev. Howard Finster was highlighted. This writer decided at that time to make a distinction in the two terms, which admittedly is an arbitrary one, since, in many art circles, these terms are used interchangeably. Although they do overlap in meaning, for the purposes of these articles, the term folk art is designated to represent that art which is the naive interpretation of an unapprenticed artist--the spontaneous inspiration of an unschooled individual.

In the case of traditional art, although it often originates from the common people wishing to adorn and enhance their surroundings and everyday accoutrements (the aforementioned overlap in meaning), the emphasis is, nevertheless, on the tradition. Moreover, the word "tradition" implies some sort of apprenticeship and imparted cultural reference. "Tradition" tells us there is a proscribed format, the incorporation of recognized symbols, an inherent ethnicity.

Pyroengraved Bench
in Traditional Pyrography of Mali

Photograph by Lisa K. Weidman

The little bench pictured above is a standard item in Malian households (referred to as compounds). As in many of the countries in Africa and the Middle and Far East, people often sit low to the ground when talking or drinking their customary tea, and a little bench such as this one is a handy item of everyday use. What makes this one unusual is its elaborate decoration, since, in general, such a bench would probably be undecorated. The design, however, is traditional in character. It is not naive representational art, but a highly stylized bird with traditional texturing in a well-defined space. The sides of the bench are also decorated.

Professions in Mali form hereditary castes. Since woodworking is not a casted profession, pyrography, like jewelry, is probably done by smiths ("numuw" in Bambara, a language of Mali), because they work with fire.

Malian Pyrographer
Maison des Artisans

Artisans Workshop
and Market
Bamako, Mali

Photograph by Erin Shakoor

Malian Pyrographic Tool

A Malian pyrographer uses several large, but thin, metal tools much like knives that have flattened blades with tips heated over hot coals. The coals are in a little metal bin with a small hand-pressed bellows attached to fire them up. He doesn't sit at a table, but sits on a little bench close to the ground with the bellows on the ground beside him.

In keeping with the preferences of most pyrographic artists, Malian artists likewise prefer very white wood. They also pyroengrave a great deal on calabashes.

Finishing the final piece seems to be something Malians do not consider. Perhaps the climate or the resources available are factors.

Music Lesson on the Kora

J. Scott Weidman
With Music Teacher Djelimady Sissoko
In the Capital City of Bamako, Mali

Photograph by Lisa K. Weidman

The West African kora is an elaborate musical instrument made from hard wood, leather, animal skin, and a gourd and utilizing 21 or more strings (made from fishing line!). It is another indication not only of the rich artistic heritage of Mali, but also of the creative resourcefulness of Malians. This amazing instrument with its unique sound and the highly regarded Malian musical tradition are becoming well known in Europe and the Americas, too.

The Semantics of Pyrography

Above is an illustration of some of the words by which pyrography is known in many parts of the world. Even in English, this art form has been known by many names, and, in fact, the way in which the artist uses fire (the "pyro" part) might well call for a particular choice of words to best describe the work. Pyrography means fire and drawing or writing most specifically, although its broader meaning could (and should) signify more variations. This series of articles intends to look at pyrography in the broadest sense of the art form. There are, however, more words to express the art form, and they often reflect its history, or the artist's method, tool, or medium. Earlier work in pyrography has been termed "poker work" or "poker art" because the artist used a tool that was at hand--a poker from the fireplace, which was heated and applied to the wood. Later, during Victorian times, it seems the word pyrography evolved along with several others like burnt wood, wood etch, and Flemish art. (We'll look at all of these more closely in a later article.) Many of these terms were nearly forgotten for many years when the simple term "woodburning" or "wood burning" seemed to suffice as did a very rudimentary concept of the art form. This term, of course, limited the medium to wood, whereas "pyrography" does not. In recent years, the word "pyrography" and other variations have once more been favored, just as the art form seems to be once more coming into its own as creative variations are blossoming.

The words used in other languages, however, also give us an insight into the concept of this art form in the respective countries. In Italy, for example, two words are in evidence--"pirograffia" (fire with drawing or writing) and "piroincisione" (fire with incising). The translation in French ("pyrogravure"), in Romanian ("pirogravura"), and Spanish ("pirograbado") all emphasize an aspect of pyrography that implies depth or texture of line; those three words would most literally be translated in English as "pyroengraving." The German words "Holz gebrunnt" most nearly match the Victorian English "burnt wood," and the expression as it stands is limited to the one medium, while the Norwegian "svidekor" more literally means "burnt decoration," and, therefore, more readily takes in all the media to which fire in any form could be applied. Its only limiting concept seems to be that it implies decorative art as opposed to fine art. The Russian, Portuguese, and Polish languages all have "pirografia" like the English "pyrography." The Arabic "Nahet AlNaar AlKhashaab" means "woodburned engraving," but the meaning could be broadened by dropping "AlKhashaab" (the wood), and you would once more have an equivalent of "pyroengraving." Whatever word or words best describe the work at hand will be our methodology as we study all the variations of the art form.

Bowls Made from Calabashes
Decorated In Traditional Malian Pyrography

At the Market in Segou, Mali

The River Niger in Background

Photograph by Lisa K. Weidman

Monday is market day in the city of Segou in Mali. Donkey carts carry all the goods and produce to the center of town. The setting, so devoid of modern reference, appears almost ancient in its simplicity.

Calabashes such as these are from the vine gourd Langenaria; they are ubiquitous in Malian homes, where they are used to carry water, grain, and most anything. They are likewise useful for separating chaff from grain by pouring the grain back and forth between two calabashes. A large calabash is carefully selected to make a kora. Often left plain, calabashes decorated with pyroengraved, mostly geometric or stylized organic designs, such as the ones pictured above, would most likely be given as a special present.



White Camels
On the Sahara Desert
At Timbuktu

Photograph by Lisa K. Weidman

Artistic Tradition in Mali

For a country with such limited resources, Mali has a bounteous artistic treasure--in wood sculpture, pyrography, painting, architecture, carved masks, textiles, jewelry, music, and dance.

The artistic traditions of other countries are a rich heritage for all of us to share in. Not only do they broaden our own artistic perspective and give us fresh inspiration and insight to draw from, but for those of us on the outside, they are an insight into the culture of another people. They allow us to cross over boundaries through the common language that is art. They bear the history of that people. Their media reflect their environment; their designs reflect their surroundings and lifestyle, their view of life and their spirituality.

Thanks to the internet and e-mail, it is this writer's hope that an international organization of pyrographers will be the means for all of us pyrographers, no matter what the level of skill or artistry, to enjoy and share our unique art form. Such an organization will mean an opportunity for growth and sharing, where the lesser can learn from the greater, where the greater can learn through sharing with the lesser. It will be a forum for discussion and a meeting place for those who enjoy this art form. It will be another way in which we can reach out to those near and far and sometimes very very far and enjoy those special talents each has to offer, and then, as a group, share them with the rest of the world. It may be the means by which even real world exhibitions could become a reality.

Mortar and Pestle
Decorated in Traditional Malian Pyrography
Shown with Three Decorated Clay Jugs
In the Market at Segou, Mali

Photograph by Lisa K. Weidman

Art in Community

The very large decorated mortar with pestle shown above is an item of essential use in Malian compounds, where it is used to pound millet and other grains. Its simple, traditional, pyroengraved geometry is only part of the artistic tradition associated with its use.

Lisa recounts that every morning she and Scott hear a woman outside their door bringing the pestle down on the millet in her mortar, clapping and lifting it up again in a rhythmic pattern. Sometimes they have seen a group of women, each with her own pestle, pounding grain around a single mortar; they will alternate strokes and sometimes sing or clap out a rhythm. "It's pretty amazing," she says, "how well they can synchronize it."

This is our first glimpse at the pyrographic tradition from one country very remote to this writer, who hopes her readers are as enthused as she is at the idea of more such "armchair adventures" (or today perhaps we would call them "desktop discoveries") planned in the future to explore traditional pyrographic art from around the world.

Enjoying Mint Tea
at Sunset on the Sahara

Lisa Weidman and
Tuareg Hosts
Timbuktu, Mali

Photograph by J. Scott Weidman

Next Issue: "Pyrogravure Coloree--The Art of Sophia Albu Ionita"

Last Issue: "Pyrography in The Land Down Under,"

Australian Pyrographer Mixo Sydenham and the Australian pyrographic art movement.


Every day we are closer to the virtual ribbon-cutting of the International E-Museum of Pyrographic Art. Remember, all you need is a good photograph of your artwork to become a part of this unique project. The same goes for the E-Gallery.

Pyrographers! This is your chance to

  • Let the buying public see your work for sale in the E-Gallery

  • Share your art, and network with the rest of the pyrography art community worldwide

  • Immortalize your favorite masterpieces (without even having to part with them) in the E-Museum

  • Join in the camaraderie of the International Association of Pyrographers

Please let me know of your interest in an e-mail and keep watching this column for more details as we establish a place and guidelines for the world's first E-Museum and E-Gallery of pyrographic art. Drop me an e-line and let me know your thoughts.

--Kathleen Menendez

Of Interest:

At last it's here! Dino Muradian's very own website featuring his remarkable pyrographic portraiture and customized guitar and humidor designs in pyrography. Don't miss it! This is one you'll want to bookmark and go back often to visit. Congratulations, Dino.

Brenda Chalifoux-Luscombe
An interesting collection of pyrographic art
depicting myths and legends from the coasts
of the Canadian province of British Columbia.

Here is a tip on sanding from pyrographer Andrew Talley who wrote in the following helpful suggestion to the woodcarvers mailing list and has given permission for its reprinting here:

...any mistake made while burning (is) permanent. That in itself makes me very uneasy, especially when doing a piece for someone else. So I recently decided to try and solve that problem.

I use a #500 grit sandpaper to resand the wood I buy from art & craft stores. This gives me a very fine finish without removing much wood.

Now most areas where mistakes are made are small, so I thought small. I took a new pencil, turned the eraser down onto the back of my sandpaper and drew a line around it. I cut out that small circle and super-glued it to the eraser. Super glue works really well as it stiffens the edges of the paper so that it doesn't tear. Now if I have an area that I think is too dark, I use the sandpaper on the eraser to lighten it as much as I need without leaving an indentation where too much wood was removed from sanding. I have even removed a light area all together. The eraser is small enough to get in between other burned areas if turned on its edge. Maybe woodcarvers could use it to sand hard-to-reach areas, such as eyes or nostrils.

I am also going to try putting sandpaper on one of those large, rectangular erasers to cover a larger area. The good thing about using erasers is (that they are) soft enough not to scratch the wood and can be cut to just about any shape that's needed.

Mystic Wood This website belongs to "Crystalize."
A little eerie and bizarre, but fun and fantastical, nevertheless.

African Sculpture from the Sub-Sahara region.
A very worthwhile site highlighting a wide variety of Malian ritual masks and other woodcarvings and pottery. Although Malian masks are often decorated with pyrography, none was in evidence here.

an excellent overview of Mali with some nice photos and great background patterns throughout. The text is in French--a plus if you know French; however, you will appreciate the photos and patterns regardless.

Not related to pyrography, but of personal interest to this writer, who would like to share it with you, is Appalachian Hiker Ed Garvey's book, "The New Appalachian Trail." It just came out and is now available, and you can get a glimpse of it on the Appalachian Long Distance Hikers Ass'n (ALDHA) webpage devoted to it. In addition to his advice to hikers and a journal for which his earlier books were famous, this one tells the story of the Appalachian Trail and how it came to be a 2000-mile long national park. It is illustrated with photos plus some fine pen-and-ink drawings by artist Sharon Garvey, whose design and photographic work was featured in the second issue of the WWWoodcarvers E-Zine in "Pyrography: Decorative Art."

The Author

Pyrographer Kathleen M. Garvey Menendez learned her pyrography techniques in Guatemala. Her sister, Artist Sharon H. Garvey later joined her there to form their company Pyrographics, and collaborate on a pyrography project designed to promote this art form in the United States with the help of the Navarro Pyrocarver, which is the pyrographic tool Kathleen represents. At present, she is actively dedicated to highlighting the art form and its artists, organizing pyrographers in an international association, assembling significant bodies of work in an e-museum, and providing pyrographers a forum for dialogue and an opportunity for displaying their work for sale in an e-gallery.

Field Research Anthropologists

Lisa and Scott Weidman have been living in The Republic of Mali below the Sahara for the last year. Since Mali is a former French colony, they are able to communicate in French while learning the Malian language of Bambara. Lisa is doing volunteer work teaching while researching international pedagogy; Scott is learning to play a Malian musical instrument called the kora while researching Malian music under a Fulbright scholarship. Despite their arduous schedule and challenging circumstances, the newlyweds agreed to take on the additional task of researching pyrography in the capital city of Bamako where they live in southern Mali and into the even more remote regions of that country as far north as Timbuktu into the Sahara Desert. Thank you, Lisa and Scott, for your splendid work.

This writer, who modestly admits that her grapevine is extensive, has learned from one of her sources that the newlywed couple have acquired an admirable carved door during their stay in Mali. As soon as a picture of it becomes available, it, too, will be shared with the readers of the WWWoodcarvers E-zine.

©1997 Kathleen M. Garvey Menendez

Background thanks to Design Originals

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